Ending 'holding pattern,' FAA cancels plan to close towers

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After several weeks of indecision, the Obama administration has decided against closing 149 contractor-run air traffic control towers due to sweeping budget cuts.

The decision by the Transportation Department brought a "sigh of relief" from small- and medium-sized airports nationwide that would have been impacted by the closures. Those towers employ some 900 controllers and the airports employ a range of other workers.

The decision follows action by Congress two weeks ago granting transportation planners budget flexibility for working around the consequences of mandatory budget cuts throughout the government. The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees air traffic services, was required to slash $253 million from its accounts this fiscal year.

Friday's announcement completes a near total reversal of plans by the Transportation Department to impose draconian austerity measures on FAA programs in response to the sweeping cuts known as sequester.

They took effect on March 1 following inaction by Congress on deficit reduction.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said prior to sequester that the FAA would have to furlough all 47,000 FAA employees on a rotating basis. The agency would also be forced to close low-activity control towers, and cut the overnight shifts at many more to meet the budget targets through September 30.

But when controller furloughs in April were blamed for causing widespread flight delays, aviation industry and other pressure mounted on Congress to grant the Transportation Department new budget powers to ease the impact of sequestration.

The controller furloughs ended after that was done and the FAA this week said it would not shut down certain control towers during overnight hours.

On Friday, the Transportation Department restored funding to contract-run towers as well as other programs.

Towers that were on the chopping block operate with contractors, acting under FAA supervision.

The DOT and FAA insisted in February that the cuts would not endanger the flying public, but opponents disagreed.

"In the end common sense prevailed over politics," Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said in a statement. Opponents demonstrated "that there are more responsible ways to cut spending than by compromising safety."

The decision also was applauded by aviation interests.

"We're very pleased," said J. Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association.

Controllers were happy to learn their jobs have been spared, airports were "ecstatic" the towers would remain open and communities breathed "a sigh of relief," he said.

Dickerson said he believes the administration was swayed by two letters, one signed by 41 senators and one by 83 House members, urging the DOT and FAA to keep the towers open.

"As you know, sequestration isn't a one-year deal. So we will continue to be at this. But at least right now, the towers being able to stay open until the end of September is terrific," Dickerson said.